Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Format: Shareware
Developer: Introversion
Mac Publisher: Ambrosia Software
Minimum System Requirements: Power Macintosh G3, MacOS X 10.2
Review Computers: 1 GHz iMac, 256MB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 video card with 64 MB of DDR RAM, Mac OS X v10.3.5; and Powerbook 17" 1.5GHz, 512MB RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 (AGP 4X) graphics processor with 64 MB of DDR SDRAM
Network Feature: No
Price: $29.99
Availability: Now
Official Website: www.darwinia.co.uk

Darwinia is the game that we thought video games would become, back in the 80s. It uses elegant graphics to render basic forms, and its simple mission structure conceals a surprisingly open-ended approach to solving those missions. Its interface is simplistic, the gameplay is sophisticated. It is a game that is both elegant and frustrating, and every time I think I've finally had enough, twenty minutes later I am booting the game back up to have another go.

The plot: Darwinia is a "virtual amusement park" set up by Dr. Sepulveda, a world populated by simulated beings called Darwinians. The Darwinians live, work and die in their world, until a problem occurs; a virus invades and takes over. Your job is to save the world by killing off the virus and achieving other objectives in the Darwinian territories.

At its heart, Darwinia is a real-time strategy program, but with a wholly different take on the genre. There aren't any resources to gather (well, hardly any, but I'll come to that in a minute), and as for your armies, well, you create units by running "programs." Small problem: you can only run three programs at a time to begin with (slightly upgradable throughout the game), and the programs have limited autonomy.

The squad is the fighting unit, blasting the viruses with lasers, grenades, and other weapons you acquire throughout the game. When you take direct control of the squad, it's a formidable force, lasers blasting constantly, able to move in one direction while firing in another, and using it's additional weaponry to mow down even the most powerful opponents. However, left on their own, a squad barely has the sense to fire a single volley at an enemy that comes into range, and never used their alternate, more powerful weaponry on their own.

The second basic unit of the game is the Engineer, which looks like the Recognizer from Tron. Able to float over the hazardous oceans that separate the islands in the Darwinian territories, the Engineer's function is to convert enemy bases to your control (allowing you to construct units near them), and to capture the souls of dead Darwinians and viruses and convert them back into living Darwinians.

Yep, you read that right—the primary resource in this game is souls, which are only useful insofar as they're converted back into Darwinians. And you'll need those little guys"represented by green stick figures"to man the machinery that will allow you to meet your mission objectives and"in certain missions"give you new units (like armored tanks which convert into cannons; cannons which must also be manned by Darwinians). Unfortunately, Darwinians have been programmed with free will—that means they wander around. To get them to go where you want them to, you'll have to promote some of them to Officers, which can force regular Darwinians to travel anywhere they direct...anywhere in a straight line, that is.

All of which combines to make Darwinia a very hands-on, one-step-at-a-time strategy game. You can create three Squads to blast the virus, but march them in all at once, and you'll soon find that the only one that survives will be the one under your direct command. You can direct your Engineer to an area where it will start collecting souls, but if you're not careful, it'll follow the most direct route back to the recycler, even if that takes it right through virus territory.

Indeed, Darwinia is a game where you try to accomplish the mission using the same simple tools as the problems get more complex. The virus begins as a red snake made up of triangles which is very easy to kill, but quickly evolves into centipedes which split into two creatures if you blast a middle segment, then giant, flying creatures that lay eggs that spawn into other creatures, catapults that launch eggs from one island to another, and worst of all, the spiders.

Oh, the Darwinian spiders! I sing of my hatred for these foul creatures! Leaping from a distance right into the middle of a squad, crushing it, for the longest time the only way I could think of to defeat them was to have my squad launch grenades onto itself, suiciding but dragging those damnable arachnids into the bowels of digital hell with them. And that worked fine. Until I started running into territories where new spiders would be generated, meaning I had to find a way past the spiders in order to kill the spider generators so that I could then backtrack and take care of them afterwards. Verily, if the grid bugs get you, you've had it.

And that's the game in a nutshell. Every level, the challenges get more complex. You move quickly from simply rescuing Darwinians to having them operate devices to get the park back online and opening portals to other territories. Meanwhile, the enemy gets more fiendish and you are forced to work with the same simple units. Success depends on finding hidden solutions: is there an unguarded base on the other side of the enemy that an Engineer could sneak to and capture? Could a squad climb far enough up a mountain to launch a volley of grenades and destroy the catapult?

The game will force you to think in new ways about how to play an RTS, as well. Since you are limited not in the number of units you can produce, but in the number you can have at one time, suicide attacks become a viable option. If your mission requires more Darwinians than you have on hand, you start "farming" the virus to produce more souls.

Darwinia is rendered in the most beautiful vector graphics I've ever seen, perhaps because they seem to be proud of the fact that they're vector graphics. The islands have mountains and valleys and a full palette of colors, yet all the triangles that make them up are clearly outlines. As you damage an opponent (or are damaged), layers of pixilated armor blow off, Tron-style, and the unit begins to flicker in and out, de-rezing. The camera controls are smooth and fluid, allowing you to zoom quickly anywhere on the map, viewing the action from any perspective. And zooming down to ground level gives you more than just a close up view: the souls begin to bounce up and down on the field, and the Darwinians almost seem to dance as they bounce along the ground.

Another unique thing about Darwinia is the interface for selecting your programs. You don't choose them from a menu, you draw them, using mouse gestures. The Squad is a triangle, the Officer a check mark. You select different weapons for your squad using this method, too. A straight line for rockets, a curve for grenades, and a three-pointed star for air strikes. Fun, different, and extremely aggravating when you're in the middle of a battle and you can't remember what the gesture for a new squad is.

In fact, one of the few real annoyances of the game is when it misinterprets the gesture. Another is the fact that, no matter how long you've been playing, the interface (as Dr. Sepulveda) will keep offering the same advice, often in the middle of the screen in the middle of the mission. I know what an officer does and I know I'll eventually need one for this mission...quit telling me how to make one! Darwinia also crashed once during a particularly hectic battle, but the game periodically saves itself during the mission, meaning that very little progress was lost.

Don't let Darwinia's simplistic-looking graphics fool you. This is a subtle, complicated strategy game; one with a structure that you can pick up in minutes, but with a depth of play that will surprise you. Yes, you have to blast the bejeezus out of the buggies, but where to start? Which is the enemy you have to take out first, and what's the best way to get there? Old school graphics combined with a modern rendering engine. Old school gameplay combined with sophisticated level design. Recommended.

Applelinks Rating

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Bill's been using Macs since the late 80s. When he's not making smartass remarks to amuse Kirk Hiner, he enjoys fighting for the user.

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